December 30, 2008

Red Harvest (1927 novel)

Written by Dashiell Hammett.

The Man With No Name, the one who sweeps into a story and causes all sorts of hell before departing, is a convention which goes way back. But rarely has it been used to quite as much effect as here.

The Continental Op heads to the small town of Personville - nick-named Poisonville by the surrounding counties - to meet with a man named Donald Willsson for reasons unknown. Just as he arrives, he finds Donald dead and old Elihu Willsson, the infirm industrialist who once ran the town, barking for answers from the scads of gangsters and corrupt officials who no longer pay him any mind. Though the mystery of Donald's death is solved less than a hundred pages in, the Continental Op doesn't take too well to an attempt on his life and talks old Elihu Willsson into funding his one-man war against the crime in Poisonville.

Thus triggers one of the finest examples of controlled chaos I've read in literature.

The Continental Op really is quite an intriguing character as, alongside his name, we really know next to nothing about him. This is put to good use when his lack of personal definition allows him to easily project the intents of the surrounding cast, bending and manipulating the criminals as he tricks them into firing at each other instead of him. The rest of the cast lacks much definition beneath what's on the surface, but I still don't mind because the complexity of the plot more than makes up for it. Hammett gives us just enough to show who these people are, then uses the Op to throw them into natural conflicts which ripple outward in brilliant ways.

I'm the first to admit that my knowledge of crime fiction is sparse, but even I could feel the genre conventions being established. Characters who put on a tough face and often have the grit to back it up. Sparse, rapid writing. A town where everybody has a few rotten bones buried in the backs of their closets. Honest exploration of why people are drawn to crime. It's all there.

And yet this still manages to rise above many of the stereotypes that have since come along. The hero, as mentioned, is a cypher with no past to show who he is or why he acts the way he does. The lead woman is a beauty sought by many men, yet not only does nothing develop between her and the Op, but she physically holds her own in fights against men without swooning or ducking behind a defender. The villains are never portrayed as sneering, cackling caricatures of evil, just guys doing what they feel needs to be done to keep themselves alive and relevant.

I didn't know what to expect with this book, but I was really impressed. It's intelligent, complex, striking, and everything keeps moving at a steady, gripping pace. If anyone wants to see what American crime fiction can be like, this would certainly be a good place to start.

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